The Earth Oven or Cooking Pit:

Click for a Cooking Pit lesson

It was usually a woman's job to prepare and cook the meals. The most frequently used process involved pit-cooking (sq'elsém) which uses an earth oven to cook roots, bulbs, plants and wild meat. The Secwepemc people used this process for most of their cooking on a daily basis.

Although there were many variations, there was a basic process used. A deep hole or underground pit about 80 centimetres to one metre deep and 75 centimetres across was dug. The hole was lined with large round lava rocks, similar to the ones used for the sweatlodge. A fire would be started and wood added on to create much charcoal. Cottonwood was preferred, because there was no pitch residue which would create a bitter taste.

Cooking Roots:

The Secwepemc began gathering roots early each spring, before the plant leaves were in bud. If the roots were not eaten raw, they were dried on strings or mats and then cooked.

Roots were prepared in many different ways. Some roots were roasted in hot ashes. Others were steamed or boiled in baskets of water heated with hot rocks. (For steaming, a framework of twigs held the roots above the boiling water.)

Roots were also baked or steamed in an earth oven. Foods inside the pit were cooked with heat from above and heat from below.

To steam the roots, the Secwepemc stood a stick in the pit before adding the layers. When the pit was filled, the stick was pulled out, leaving a hole. Water poured into the hole made steam when it struck the hot stones below.

Certain plant foods were steamed or baked together to improve their taste. Wild onion was placed next to hummingbird plant. Balsam root was placed next to penstemon.

After the fire had burned down and the rocks were red hot, a long pole would be placed in the hole to act as a place holder for a steam vent. After the pole was inserted a thick layer of red willow sticks and rose bush stems were arranged in a crosshatch manner, resembling a basket shape.

A matting was arranged over this pile of vegetation so that dirt would not mix with the food being prepared and cooked. Then the food was put in the pit. Usually meat was in one section, then potatoes, and then some type of vegetable.

After the food was arranged a matting would be used again to cover the food. The sticks and stems were again layered on top, similar to the lid of a basket. On top of this was a thick layer of leaves so the food being cooked would not dry out. A final layer of rocks was then placed over the thick top layer of leaves and the pole was removed from the pit. Water was carried in a basket and poured down the hole left by the pole. The water would hit the hot rocks and create steam. A rock was placed over the opening to trap the steam and cook the food.

The pit was left three to four hours, and everything would be cooked. When it was ready, the top layer of small rocks and thick layered vegetation was gently removed so the food would not get mixed with dirt. The meal was then served to the family.

If you click on the picture you will learn more about the process.

Roasting over an open fire - Sq'wlem:

Another method of food preparation involved roasting meat over an open fire or Sq'wlem. This was considered a man's job. A fire using cottonwood was built in a pit. This type of wood did not contain pitch and created much charcoal or cinders. Wood was added on one side of the pit and the cinders pushed to the other side of the pit. Stakes made from green pieces of wood were implanted at an angle around the fire pit. Meat such as deer ribs would be woven into the upper part of the stick. Wood was continually added to the fire to keep the heat up. After a while the meat was turned so all sides of the meat would get roasted. This method cooked meat in about three hours.

Activity: Math

Would you like to know how big an earth oven was? To find out you will need a metre stick and a centimetre ruler. With the metre stick measure out how wide the oven would be. Then measure the depth. Now try drawing a diagram to scale of an earth oven.

Important Information to Remember:
Tools used to cook food:

  • A digging stick was used to dig a large pit which was lined with lava rocks.
  • A pole was used as a place holder for a steam vent.
  • The food was then placed on matting and covered to cook.
  • A birch bark basket was used to carry water to pour into the cooking pit to create steam.